Coastal Erosion – The greatest threat to our greatest courses?

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Coastal erosion is caused by waves, storms, and tidal power, gradually eating away at the coastline, and this is a particularly pressing issue for courses situated on the powerful Atlantic Ocean where breaking swells can reach heights of up to three metres.

Recently, County Sligo Golf Club announced that, through the acclaimed MacKenzie & Ebert design team, contingency plans had been drawn up for a new par-3 to replace the existing 16th hole which is in dire threat of succumbing to the advances of the ocean.

Royal Portrush, Castlerock, Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, Narin and Portnoo, Enniscrone, Carne, Mulranny, Doonbeg, Lahinch and Ballybunnion have all had their own issues, most notably Narin and Portnoo which saw a chunk of the 15th fairway swept away in 2014 and Doonbeg, which lost its 14th green during storms around the same time.

Extensive rock armouring is the solution, acting as a barrier which takes the brunt of the tidal power and protects the sedimentary faces behind, but rock armouring is extremely expensive and requires planning permission from the local authorities, something which Doonbeg and its owner Donald Trump were denied in 2020. There’s a temptation to make a Trump-wall joke here, but it’s no laughing matter. Trump’s polarising political persona was more than likely a contributing factor in both the objections arising and their being sustained, but nevertheless, the threat of coastal erosion won’t go away on its own.

Royal Portush have recently extended their rock armouring by 20 metres to add extra protection to the fifth green and sixth tee box on the Dunluce Course in an attempt to alleviate concerns ahead of the 2025 Open Championship, but where Royal Portrush have managed to shore up their defences, countless others lie critically exposed.

It’s a desperate situation and, according to The R&A, the threats posed by global warming are “very, very real”. The Climate Coalition, which represent more than 130 organisations in Britain studying the effects of climate change, said in a 2018 report that “only a small increase in sea-level rise would imperil all the world’s links courses before the end of the century”.

Steve Isaac, The R&A’s director of sustainability, was also quoted in the report, admitting that rising sea levels, intense rain and increased droughts were “becoming a huge factor”. He added: “We are feeling it now with increases in unplayable holes, winter course closures and disruption to professional tournaments. Without cutting the carbon emissions driving climate change, sea levels will rise by over a metre and extremely wet winters will become the norm. Many aspects of our lives, including the game of golf, would struggle to adapt to such a changed world.”

With almost 80 of the 420-odd golf courses in Ireland situated on or close to the coast, and 15 of the top 16 in our most recent Irish Golfer Top 100 listings classified as links courses, the threat is not only real, the threat is terrifying.

In Scotland, the threat is even more pronounced as the Scottish coast enjoys significantly less armoured protection than the rest of Britain and Ireland but both Celtic cousins boast a similar number of links courses. The Climate Coalition namechecked Montrose Golf Links, the fifth oldest club in the world, as an example of the “future threat” and how “more than 450 years of golfing history” was at risk of crumbling into the sea.

Research from Dundee University in 2015 estimated that the North Sea has crept 70 metres closer to the course in the last 30 years. Rock defences have been used to tackle the eroding coast, but even that has proved insufficient.

Back in 2018, high winds blew debris off the beach and covered the 2nd hole on the 1562 Course in hundreds of tons of sand, forcing greenkeepers to remove by hand after rain solidified it.

“As the sea rises and the coast falls away, we’re left with nowhere to go,” said Chris Curnin, a director at Montrose Links. “Climate change is often seen as tomorrow’s problem, but it’s already eating away at our course.”

The club have already had to move three holes and that was before another three-and-a-half metres of land was lost in the second half of 2019.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle but given the revenue that golf tourism – and links golf in particular – brings to the economy, this is a problem that extends well beyond golf courses and their members. Sustainability in golf means protecting our greatest assets’ shorelines, and economical sustainability mirrors that.

Government intervention is necessary before it’s too late and large chunks of history are swept out to sea.

This article appeared in Irish Golfer Magazine – to check it out in full CLICK HERE

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